Orange (France Telecom) now offers free access to Wikipedia for mobile data users in 20 countries. It's not perfect; users only get free access to the mobile version of the site which lacks the functionality required to contribute, however a vast archive of human knowledge is now significantly more accessible to tens of millions of people. Excellent news indeed!
Or, is it? While free Wikipedia for the masses might sound like a good idea, I argue that it's a major threat to Net Neutrality; that it undermines one of the Internet's greatest benefits to society: the level playing-field.
The Internet allows people to easily pool resources, mass-communicate, and transact business on a global scale. Everyone gets fairly equal access to the same market and the same potential pool of resources. This is why Google was able to compete with Yahoo from a garage, and why Facebook was able to compete with MySpace from a university dorm room.
Before reading any further, you must first understand how the Internet works (watch the video):
You must also understand how Internet access is sold. Traditionally, all-you-can-eat monthly plans (differentiated by speed) were the norm. This is due to the fact that packets of data are not a scarce resource. There's a nearly infinite supply as they are generated by computers at almost no cost. The only constraint on supply is the transmission rate (i.e. the speed at which they can be sent and received).
Despite this, many Internet service providers have begun selling access in units of volume, otherwise known as data-cap bundles. Why? Because it creates new opportunities to make money. They can charge differently for every packet of data that crosses their network; they can charge for access to some websites and not others, offer tiered services (think of television's Bronze, Silver, and Gold packages), and give customers free access to related online businesses while charging for access to the competition.
When Internet service providers engage in this type of behavior, and offer their customers free access to sponsored services like Facebook or Wikipedia, they are unbalancing the level playing-field by allowing wealthy corporations to buy preferential access to the market. As this behavior becomes more prevalent, it will have an increasingly negative impact on start-up companies and new technologies who cannot afford preferential access; it will introduce a significant financial barrier to scale.
But don't just take my word for it; listen to Vint Cerf, inventor of the Internet:
So what does all of this mean for Uganda? We talk a lot about Internet penetration rates and World Bank statistics, but we don't talk about what kind of Internet we're deploying. What hope do Ugandan entrepreneurs and innovators have, even amongst themselves, if large (possibly foreign) corporations are allowed to monopolize and control access to the market? How will the next Facebook launch from Makerere, or the next Google from someone's pocket in Karamoja, if the Internet does not remain neutral?